"How to Write a Screenplay"


A good dramatic story is essentially an engine for establishing and releasing dramatic potential, and you should exploit every opportunity to this end--including, perhaps most especially, naming. In addition to your characters, you should name your places, things, objects, and devices—and everything else in your screenplay—carefully, deliberately, intentionally to inject meaning and create interest.

Why should I name everything carefully in my screenplay?

Experienced dramatic writers seeking artistic and economic success put a considerable amount of thought into naming. They expend huge time and effort creating just the right names for everything in their stories that can by named. They do this to establish mood, anticipation (dramatic potential), suspense, depth, texture, interest, intrigue, irony, and humor. They do it to make their dramatic story work.

First create a 'dramatic skeleton' of meaning

Names of characters, places, objects, or any other kind of names can and should be used to establish what the story is about, theme, meaning, atmosphere, etc. Properly done, careful naming of characters, places, and everything else in the movie will tell who's what kind of person, who's going to do what to whom and where, what the mood is, what the genre is, emphasize the irony, etc. This creates a dramatic skeleton of meaning, the dialogue and action passages providing the flesh.

You can also apply what you've learned to the naming of places and things, etc.

Meaning on the subconscious level

Viewers not given to interpreting the meaning of names, for whatever reason, will likely pick up meaning on a subconscious level. Some may even learn about it through critical reviews, or by studying film or screenwriting at some point in their lives, thereby enhancing their appreciation for what goes into writing an exceptional dramatic story, and for the stories themselves.

A 'life force' of meaning

By spending time and effort on careful naming, you infuse your story with the life force of meaning, helping you tell your story better. A story you now know better because so much time has been spent investigating its underlying meaning, themes, and who does what to whom and why. You can make a small story big simply by using names that connect to broader worlds.

Join the long procession of great writers

You can benefit from that sense of accomplishment that comes from doing a job well and thoroughly. You can proudly join the long procession of great writers who have carefully named their characters before you, and can enjoy a bit of "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" with those who appreciate the sophistication of your abilities and the glory of your effort.

For more on character naming see here

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  1. Consider the names of the town in Sicily where the Godfather comes from ("Corleone") in THE GODFATHER (1972). What does it mean? How does its meaning support the story?
  2. Consider the place names in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005). Why does short story authoress Annie Proulx set her story on the fictional "Brokeback Mountain"? About her choice she says in an interview "the name worked on several levels and replaced half a dozen more pedestrian names I had been trying out". What "levels" do you think the name works on? How can careful selection (creation) of place names improve the story over the use of "pedestrian names"? Why "Signal, Wyoming"?
  3. What was screenwriter David Webb Peoples doing naming the town "Big Whiskey" in Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN (1992)?
  4. In THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998): Why "Sea Haven" for where the main character lives?
  5. Captain Renault in CASABLANCA (1942) tosses a bottle of mineral water in the trash, just before crossing over to the other side with Rick. What does the label loudly proclaim and why?